Western Philosophy


Period 1

6 May 2011

Manifestations of Evil



Through the medium of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo introduces broad themes related to evil.  In these manifestations of evil – as evidenced in his characters through their greed, views of human nature, the rigidity of society, a lack of recognition in supernatural agenda and disparate social arrangements – are coupled with central characters to shed an expository light on their morals, values and motives.  It is herein where Hugo offers commentary about the human condition of revolutionary France.


The contrast between the altruistic convict that Valjean represented against the rigidity of the law was an interesting way to juxtapose ideas one may deem as evil.  To cheat, lie and steal does not paint the most conventional portrait of a hero.  However, without those experiences Jean Valjean would have never found himself in a place to question himself and his ability to change.  Taking this into account, what is truly responsible for the redemptive journey that took place, the changes that placed him in a position to change, or his decision to reform himself?


A fierce abandonment, an illegitimate child and shortage of resources sent Fantine into a downward spiral toward prostitution and crime.  Social customs discouraged her from advocating on her behalf, in turn furthering her dilemma.  Strictly structured systems of beliefs are also a contributing factor when dissecting her path destined for failure.  The rigidity within those institutions of supposed support left her with an unmanageable amount of responsibility and uncertainty.  Taken holistically, the circumstances left her to abandon her inhibitions and face an instinctual trial of events that would leave her to sacrifice the last hope for survival she had, her Cosette.


The parallel between Javert’s values and those of Fantine and Jean Valjean could be likened to a war of polar opposite ideas.  For Javert, justice was the higher power.  Despite the fallacies of the judicial system, the corruption of those who are in charge, or the extreme nature of the punishment, he viewed it as a foolproof institution, without which society would crumble to the depths of chaos and anarchy.  This belief was a key component that led to his eventual suicide.  Seeing that Valjean was a good man and a convicted criminal did not fit into his regimented style of thinking.  This epiphany also caused him to think about the possible existence of a God-like higher form of consciousness which, until that moment, he had seen as inseparable from the law itself. Not being able to reconcile two contradicting points of views – that he saw truth in both – was a pivotal moment in the novel.  It brought a complexity to the character and to the plotline because it forced the reader to recognize a universal paradoxical challenge: righteousness in the eyes of society and righteousness in the eyes of a supreme being. 


Mr. Thenardier’s beliefs, molded and shaped under the influence of society and ever-present primitive human instincts, falls in line with the actions through the novel.  His idolization of money and the false happiness it represents could be deemed the catalyst which led to the disintegration of his family.  The social arrangements and living conditions he was under drove him to a place of extreme indignation that resulted in an unquenchable greed challenging paper thin morals that would have kept him from potential satisfaction.  On the path toward achieving his financial gain, he sold his daughters into prostitution, abandoned his three sons to the harsh streets, and left his wife in prison, where she will eventually die.  Looking at the situation through the lenses of compassion and moral obligation, one might judge Mr. Thenardier quite harshly.  However, if his actions were to be viewed with a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest perspective, the scrutiny would certainly diminish much criticism.  Yet he is still viewed as the prominent villain in the novel.  Perhaps this is due to a conflict between the emotionality that is innate within all humans and the component of rationality and reason which is expected when looking for an answer.


For many casual readers, the energies and significance Victor Hugo put into developing the characters of Les Miserables may seem slightly excessive.  Yet when considering the philosophical quotient one can see the import of his detail and interlocking storylines.  How the subtle coincidences and explanations behind their objectives and means to achieve them gave the reader a critical insight into the meaning and significance about a particular point of view.  By doing this, he brought a more accessible style of philosophy to the table, and therefore sparked thought across the world.



[1] ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Meghan graduated from Phoenix High School (Phoenix, Oregon USA) in June 2011.